Tomorrow Matters: September 2020

Much mainstream discussion of the Asia-Pacific region over the past month has centred around China: more specifically, the rapidly-worsening relationship between Beijing and Washington. The tit-for-tat retaliation between the two major economies is undoubtedly going to continue.
Several countries in Asia have also been dealing with "third-wave outbreaks" of COVID-19, but quick actions in places like Vietnam and Hong Kong appear to have brought things back under control.
Yet there is much happening throughout East, Southeast and South Asia while attention is focused on both the superpower rivalry and the pandemic.
  • The Parsi community in India celebrated their New Year on August 17th.
  • Indonesian President Joko Widodo announced Indonesia's new national budget, with a claim that the coronavirus could spur a "big leap forward" for the country's development.
  • Singapore welcomed a new Parliament with its first-ever "Leader of the Opposition".
  • An era of Japanese politics came to an end as Prime Minister Shinzo Abe — the longest-serving Prime Minister in recent memory — announced his resignation due to health concerns.
  • Protests continued in Thailand as discontent with the current government boil over, with a new generation of activists calling for changes to the political system.
This month's curated list of articles spans a wide range of issues, from responses to the COVID pandemic to improving our current models for economic development.


A Victim of Its Own COVID Success?

The government of Thailand has been praised for its quick action taken to combat the spread of the Coronavirus. The Centre for Covid-19 Situation Administration (CCSA) has constantly highlighted “zero” local transmissions and now their focus has turned towards imported cases. But does the CCSA’s obsession in flattening the curve to “zero” by stopping outsiders from entering the country come without consequences?
Kavi Chongkittavorn, a senior fellow at Chulalongkorn University, believes that this success could easily be turned against Thailand. He explores how the country could emerge from the pandemic with more dissatisfied Thais, foreign diplomats and citizens. He argues educating the Thai public about the current situation will be more effective rather than focusing on numerical achievements.

The Philippines

Recovering from the Pandemic

Like almost every economy, the COVID-19 pandemic has decimated the Philippine economy. Lockdowns have led to an economic contraction of over 9%, and 45.5% of adults were considered unemployed at the worst of the outbreak.
One might expect the Philippines to struggle with its recovery. Yet Dr. Benjamin E. Diokno, Governor of the Philippine Central Bank, explains that the country has enough monetary and fiscal space to fuel its recovery. The country's rising population of young talent and a more technologically-savvy "new economy" could potentially lead to more accelerated income growth.
Dr. Diokno explains that the Philippine Central Bank kept the economy stable by taking a more active role in reducing poverty and focusing more on humanitarian outcomes. This actually puts the Bank at the forefront of discussions happening in governments globally, as central bankers move to focus on lowering unemployment and helping society rather than a singular focus on controlling inflation.


Proposing a New Development Model

Myanmar is one of Southeast Asia's last frontiers for economic development. Yet an unbalanced and unsustainable approach to development will worsen prospects for equality, improved standards of living, and political stability. Tragedies like the recent jade mine collapse show how a singular pursuit towards growth and resource extraction can have deadly consequences.
This article by author and historian Thant Myint-U raises the urgent need for Myanmar to focus on high quality development over a growth model that relies on unskilled labour and exporting primary commodities. Myanmar had for the past 150 years virtually no economic development due to colonial rule, lack of institutional capacity, internal conflicts and international isolation. He suggests that Myanmar needs a strong, capable and "entrepreneurial" state, which prioritises addressing inequality and creates institutions in service of remaking society, especially in the wake of the pandemic and risks from climate change.


Rural Internet as Essential Infrastructure

It can be difficult to separate the analysis from the hype when it comes to talking about the internet and how it might contribute to development. Better and easier access to information and certain services could lead to some benefits, yet some claims of how internet access would fundamentally transform human life seem too exaggerated to be useful as a way to set priorities.
Shah Meer Baloch and Zafar Musyani put forward where and how a lack of internet access can actually hurt communities, especially during the COVID-19 pandemic. As schools are closed to protect public health, rural students find they can't access remote learning tools, and thus risk falling even further behind their urban peers. It is a reminder that things the upper- and even middle-classes may take for granted do not exist for those outside of the city.
It may not be as flashy as 5G, but providing basic connectivity would go a long way in reducing the inequality between urban and rural/remote communities. Pakistan is not alone: rural connectivity is poor in countries as wide apart as India and the United States. If the internet truly is a basic need, the answer comes through rural cable and public services that can work on cheap devices.


The Environment is Not a Cost

"Sustainability requires much more than mere good intentions" writes Pitamber Kaushik. Many bold claims are made about how to reduce our use of resources and achieve a more sustainable economy. Yet many of these efforts fall flat once they are put into practice, as it becomes clear that these "more sustainable" practices have their own external costs that become untenable when exercised across an entire economy.
Kaushik argues that we need to see the environment as dynamic and organic, constantly changed by human practices — sometimes towards some new stable equilibrium, in other times towards collapse. This view places the environment not as something to be preserved, but as something to be maintained and supported.
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